Test Connection: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out


Connect with an expert to learn how to work smarter and learn new techniques to uncover more defects. In the first installment of this recurring column, Michael Bolton revels in the joy of discovery.

My interest in science is to simply find out more about the world, and the more I find out the better it is. I like to find out. -RICHARD FEYNMAN

Every now and then someone asks me what I do, and I reply that I'm a software tester, and that I teach testing, and that I write about testing, and that I love testing. At that point, some people look at me as though I have tulips growing out of my ears. And at that point, I usually feel as though a little explanation is in order, so I tell them about Richard Feynman.

Many years ago, I saw a Nova episode called "The Best Mind Since Einstein?" that featured a profile of Dr. Feynman, perhaps the greatest physicist of the latter half of the twentieth century. His career more or less started at Los Alamos, on the project that resulted in the development of the atom bomb, and was capped with his participation in the investigation into the crash of the Challenger, an account that appears in his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? Through most of the period in between, Feynman was a professor at Caltech and worked on some of the hardest physics problems of his time, including quantum electrodynamics. He was famous for having developed "Feynman diagrams"-little drawings that simply and clearly illustrate the interactions between subatomic particles, time, and energy. He had a particular genius for reframing ideas and numbers in ways that allowed previously intractable problems to be solved.

Feynman's first collection of memoirs is called Surely You're Joking, Dr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character . There are at least three possible interpretations of that title. The adventures themselves had a curious character to them; Feynman himself was eccentric or a curiosity; and for sure, Feynman was curious-relentlessly, eagerly, wonderfully interested in the world. He wanted to know how things worked, and he took an inordinate joy in discovery. He told delightful stories about learning and discoveries. These stories often involved discussions between adults and children. Feynman was lucky enough to have a very good amateur scientist for a father. In particular, the elder Feynman was wise about the extent of his own knowledge. He pointed out that people often bandied about names for things that they didn't understand, so he encouraged his son to learn about the nature of things, and not just to learn the words for them. The younger Feynman grew up in a household that encouraged and valued asking questions and attempting to answer them with experiment and observation. 

I've often described Richard Feynman as the patron saint of software testers. Like a tester, he took great pleasure in pulling off tricks that others couldn't. In What Do You Care What Other People Think? , he describes his career as a safe-cracker. He became something of a legend at Los Alamos, a highly "secure" installation. The staff kept important papers in identical safes with rotary combination locks. Every now and then someone needed something that someone else had locked away. Feynman found that he could get into the safes, but not through any magical manipulation of the tumblers. He had managed to find a little documentation on the safes, which included the default combination. Feynman soon figured out that a significant number of people never changed the default combination. He also came to realize that they tended to choose obvious combinations based on things that were memorable to them, such as birthdays, and that they often left the combinations written down somewhere in or near their


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